Early in his life, Geronimo became invested in the continuing and relentless cycle of revenge warfare between the Apaches and Mexicans. On March 5, 1851, a force of Mexican militia attacked and surprised an Apache camp outside of Janos, Chihuahua, slaughtering the inhabitants.
Geronimo was absent at the time of the attack, but when he returned he found that his mother, wife, and his three children were among the dead. The murders devastated Geronimo. In the tradition of the Apache, he set fire to his family’s belongings and then, in a show of grief, headed into the wilderness to bereave the deaths. A voice came to Geronimo promising:
No gun will ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans … and I will guide your arrows.
Beginning in the 1850s, the face of his enemy changed. Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States took over large tracts of territory from Mexico, including areas belonging to the Apache. Spurred by the discovery of gold in the Southwest, settlers and miners streamed into their lands.
Naturally, tensions mounted and the Apaches stepped up their attacks. But the Chiricahua leader, Geronimo‘s father-in-law, Cochise, could see where the future was headed. In an act that greatly disappointed his son-in-law, he called a halt to his decade-long war and agreed to the establishment of a reservation for his people on a prized piece of Apache property.
Cochise died, and the government reneged on its agreement, moving the Chiricahua north so that settlers could move into their former lands. This act only further incensed Geronimo, setting off a new round of fighting.
Geronimo proved to be as elusive as he was aggressive. However, authorities finally caught up with him in 1877, and sent him to the San Carlos Apache reservation. For four long years, he struggled with his new reservation life, finally escaping in September 1881.
Out on his own again, Geronimo and a small band of Chiricahua followers eluded American troops. Over the next five years, they engaged in what proved to be the last of the Indian wars against the United States.
Perceptions of Geronimo were nearly as complex as the man himself. His followers viewed him as the last great defender of the Native American way of life. But others, including fellow Apaches, saw him as a stubborn holdout, driven by revenge and foolishly putting the lives of people in danger.
With his followers in tow, Geronimo shot across the Southwest. As he did, the seemingly mystical leader was transformed into a legend as newspapers closely followed the Army’s pursuit of him. At one point nearly a quarter of the Army’s forces – 5,000 troops – were trying to hunt him down.
Finally, in the summer of 1886, he surrendered, the last Chiricahua to do so. Over the next several years Geronimo and his people were moved around, first to a prison in Florida, then a prison camp in Alabama and then Fort Sill in Oklahoma. In total, the group spent 27 years as prisoners of war.
Geronimo married Chee-hash-kish, and they had two children, Chappo and Dohn-say. Then he took another wife, Nana-tha-thtith, with whom he had one child. He later had a wife named Zi-yeh at the same time as another wife, She-gha, one named Shtsha-she and later a wife named Ih-tedda. Geronimo’s ninth and last wife was Azul.
In February 1909, Geronimo was thrown from his horse while riding home, and had to lie in the cold all night until a friend found him extremely ill. On his deathbed, he confessed to his nephew that he regretted his decision to surrender.
I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive. – Geronimo
Geronimo died at the Fort Sill hospital in 1909, as a prisoner of war.